The 24th edition of the FIM Superbike World Championship is set to get under way this weekend with the opening round held at Phillip Island (Australia). The spectacular sea backdrop venue located 150 kms south of Melbourne in the State of Victoria was the scene for two days of official tests earlier this week, and the times recorded clearly gave some indication of how the 23 riders present will go this weekend.
Following the tests, most of the Superbike and Supersport riders were able to relax for a couple of days but on the day before action gets underway, they lined up for the championship's official photo shoot on Gardner Straight.
All eyes will be on the track tomorrow however when the action gets serious. Unlike the tests, which were held in variable weather conditions, the weekend forecast is for good weather, an important element in tyre choice.
Carlos Checa (Ducati Althea Racing) dominated the tests, confirming the competitiveness of the Italian bikes even though they are run by private teams. The top four positions included three Ducati 1098R machines, with Sylvain Guintoli and Jakub Smrz in third and fourth on the Effenbert - Liberty Racing versions.
Carlos Checa: "Testing was very positive, we had a good lap time but what is more important is after Sunday. So far we focus on the work to get the right feeling with the bike because we didn't do so much testing this winter. Finally you arrive at a certain point where the bike is OK, the feelings, the reference and you put the right tyre in and do the lap time. My feeling is that this is one of the best tracks for Ducati. Now we start with a different bike and I think we have a better package than last year."
A crash in the final stages of testing will almost certainly not prevent Jonathan Rea from taking part in the opening round of the season. The man from Northern Ireland will take to the track tomorrow in first practice despite a swollen left wrist.
Jonathan Rea: "I've spent the last two days in hospital, which really frustrated me. I have a bit of swelling in my left hand, but hopefully we can get it down. Movement is perfect and my strength also. I'm looking forward to riding here, my bike's working well. Last year it wasn't perfect but the set-up over a race distance was good and I'm looking forward to banging bars and try and start the season off better than last year."
The man they all have to beat is 2010 World Champion Max Biaggi, who thanks to a prior test session at Phillip Island in December, took to the track this week only when the weather conditions improved. The Aprilia Alitalia rider should have a better pace than the sixth quickest time her set at the start of the week.
Max Biaggi: "I feel very good of course to start in the best way possible. I feel good with the bike and the team, we have all the same equipment and the bike gets a little better, but there's going to be a big question-mark for this weekend. I'll try to be there. This track looks like it doesn't suit the Aprilia like the other tracks but we will try to get a good result and the best points possible. Testing was OK and I'm quite optimistic to get a good result on Sunday."
Another Italian, Marco Melandri (Yamaha World Superbike Team) is rapidly recovering from the recent operation on his shoulder, as could be seen in his eighth place on day 2 of the tests, just behind a confident Michel Fabrizio on the Suzuki Alstare machine.
Marco Melandri: "I'm pretty happy to be here, everything looks very new and very difficult. It's going to be very tough for me because of my shoulder, that has taken two months to recover. Testing on Monday and Tuesday was good, so much better than at Portimao but still not 100%. I just want to try and do my best, my Yamaha is working very good and I'm very confident. My physical condition is not perfect right now, so two times 22 laps is not going to be easy!"
On the Kawasaki front, Chris Vermeulen confirmed that he will not be taking part in this weekend's round, but the team will be well-represented by Joan Lascorz and Tom Sykes. The BMWs have not yet reached their full potential after notching up the miles in winter testing, with Leon Haslam leading the group.
Honda's traditional supremacy in World Supersport - eight titles in the last nine years - could come under threat this time around. Following the testing results, the Kawasaki ZX-6R machines of the Motocard.com team, in the hands of Broc Parkes and David Salom, look to have all the right cards to be able to challenge Fabien Foret (Hannspree Ten Kate Honda), top man by just 14 thousandths of a second. The Yamahas might also get in amongst the front-running action thanks to the presence of the Bike Service and ParkinGO teams: Roberto Tamburini and Luca Scassa were respectively sixth and seventh in testing. The panorama of manufacturers on the grid is completed by Triumph and Danilo Dall'Omo, who also ran well in the tests.